It was my first move, and I excitedly told everyone. My friends on the Hill were all sad to see us go, of course. But adults had a different reaction. Most of them looked momentarily wistful as they sighed, “Ohhhhhh, Erskine Boulevard,“ as if my family were moving on up to the East Side or something.
I didn’t get then that Erskine Blvd. carried some prestige. It was named after a past president of South Bend’s famed (but long since bankrupted and shuttered) Studebaker Corporation. A rare curved street on the city grid, its homes, many of which carried distinctive design touches, were a half-cut above the surrounding blocks of middle-class homes. None of the homes was breathtaking by any means, but together they had appeal that lent distinction to the boulevard.
When we moved in, many of our neighbors were the original homebuilders. Today, neighborhoods are built by developers; then, each owner bought a lot, hired an architect or bought existing blueprints, bought the materials, and hired an independent contractor to build their home. The neighborhood expanded in phases over 40 years with the first homes built on the north end in the 1920s and the last on the south end by 1960. This makes the boulevard a microcosm of middle-class residential styles that unfolds as you walk or drive it from north to south, with small two-story frame homes on small lots giving way to larger brick or limestone homes giving way to wide ranch homes set back more deeply on somewhat larger lots. Alleys hide behind the homes in the first six blocks; garages front the street in the last two. Power lines are buried in the first seven blocks, where ornamental street lights line the road; the last block got utility poles and exposed lines with plain industrial-grade street lights.
Our 1951 home was on the last block. The elementary school was one block away to the southwest; the high school seven blocks north. Few children lived on the boulevard, but each school morning and afternoon it was filled with kids walking to and from. My neighbors included my kindergarten teacher’s widower, my third grade teacher, my fourth grade teacher, and my high school homeroom teacher. We moved to Erskine Blvd. when I was in the fourth grade, and it was very exciting when Mrs. Brown, my teacher, walked over to welcome us to the neighborhood with a homemade cherry pie in her hands. It all made for the kind of neighborhood I have wished for since, but have never found – one in which people were brought together not just because of proximity, but because their lives made them interdependent on each other.
Being a city neighborhood, it was possible to do quite a bit without a car. A small grocery store and two pharmacies lay within a half mile, all easy walks. A dry cleaner, a dairy store, a library branch, and a five and dime with a stainless steel soda fountain were a bit farther away; I preferred to reach them on my bike. My dad used to drive his car to a service station six or seven blocks away and walk home while a technician fixed whatever was wrong with it. A two minute car ride took us to appliance and furniture dealers. And if Dad had been less of the home-cooked meal sort, we might have made more use of the three or four restaurants on the perimeter of our neighborhood. If Dad were a drinker, he could have lubricated himself just fine at the bar a few blocks away, which is close enough that he could have crawled home if he imbibed too much. All but the appliance store are gone now, although two well-regarded city golf courses remain, both within walking distance.
Also gone is pride in homeownership, at least in much of the surrounding neighborhood. The bad neighborhoods were over a mile north of us when I lived here; today, they’re only five or six blocks away. It’s typical of cities for decay to slowly radiate from the center, and decline will soon reach the blocks near my parents’ house. Somehow, Erskine Blvd. has escaped that decay, as these photographs show. Yet the boulevard’s prestige has faded as the neighborhood has become inner-city with all the attendant problems. It’s common to see the streets that cross Erskine Blvd. on the police blotter. Something like 80 percent of the children at the elementary school receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. The high school is on probation with the state because too few of its students passed the ISTEP standardized test.
Some southsiders are working to stem the decline and renew hope. Neighborhood associations have formed, and local businesses have made some attempts to come together for the good of the area. Some individuals are doing their part; my father, for example, has become involved in politics and with a few key grassroots social programs, encouraging both economic growth and individual growth to overcome the creeping malaise. And the church that anchors the boulevard’s south end, Living Stones Church, has made the surrounding neighborhoods its mission field. They have done a splendid job of showing simple, no-strings-attached love in the neighborhood. They give the elementary school a lot of their time and energy; for example, last year they gave new shoes to every student who wanted them. And nobody on Erskine Blvd. has forgotten how, after a terrible storm that toppled many dozens of trees, church members came through the neighborhood with their chain saws. They worked with their neighbors to cut up the felled trees and, if I recall correctly, drag the pieces to the curb for city pickup.
Belying the challenges, and excepting the missing trees, Erskine Blvd. looks much as it always has, and life goes on there much as it always did. People still go to work in the morning and come home in the evening, and care for their homes and yards on the weekends. Children still walk to school and still ride their bikes and play. When I was in high school, my dear friend Debbie used to come by every morning and we’d walk together. Much of the school year we walked in the dark. When it snowed (and boy howdy, did it snow in South Bend) we made our way before the city plowed the boulevard and before the neighbors came out with shovels. We walked together silently, just enjoying how the fresh snow sparkled under the streetlights. I liked to go in early, so ours were usually the first footprints. I like to imagine that some high schoolers today find the same pleasure in those early morning snowy walks.
The newspaper is still delivered, of course, although it’s a morning paper now, and teenagers shouldering canvas sacks full of papers have given way to adults in cars who dash out to place papers on porches. I delivered the South Bend Tribune every afternoon for many years. Several of the houses on my route had a little metal door into which milk was once delivered. It was a passthrough; a matching door inside let the homeowner exchange empty milk bottles for full without having to go out into the weather. By the time I came along, milk delivery was long gone, but my customers always wanted their newspaper left there. I imagine they still do.
Elderly homeowners, I’m sure, still hire neighborhood kids to mow their lawns. I made good pocket money every summer doing that. I also raked leaves in the fall and shoveled driveways and sidewalks in the winter. One neighbor erected a wooden privacy fence around his back yard and hired my brother and I to stain it (for which he paid us a pittance, which was an important lesson in agreeing on a price before starting work). Another neighbor took his wife to Europe for two weeks every summer and paid me to bring in their mail and look after the place.
An annual Christmastime tradition is the candlelight walk, which had its 25th anniversary in 2009. One evening about a week before Christmas, neighbors line both edges of the sidewalk in front of their homes with little white paper sacks weighed down with sand; a lighted candle is placed in each sack. That’s 2,500 candles along the boulevard’s eight blocks! People came from all over town to see; the event always made the news. In the early years, enthusiastic neighbors hired a horse-drawn wagon to give rides up and down the boulevard. That part of the tradition faded away after a few years, and flagging interest almost killed the event a few times. But not only has it hung on, it has become better than ever. Horse-drawn wagon rides are back, and Living Stones Church has gotten involved, hosting a nativity scene with live animals and serving everyone hot chocolate and cookies.
Even though I left South Bend in 1985 to go to college, my parents still live in their home on Erskine Blvd., and I visit several times a year. I like to take a walk up and down the boulevard while I’m there, or at least drive it, to enjoy my old neighborhood. What I wouldn’t give to live in a neighborhood like it today.
See the rest of my photos from this springtime walk along Erskine Blvd.